The Dooms of King Ine


King Ine of Wessex was a strong and popular king. He reigned for many years as the strongman of southern England. He is most famous for two things: giving money and permission to build what would become Glastonbury Abbey and putting together a code of laws that was as equally famous as those of Ethelbert’s centuries before.

As with other such codes, the significance lay not so much in what the laws said as in what they did. Ine’s code set down laws, practices, and punishments for a myriad of people, places, and eventualities. It put commoners on a more even footing with noblemen, and it made refusing to serve in the king’s army a very big crime: A man who didn’t obey his king’s order to fight could be fined and made to give up his land. (This code also gave us such helpful definitions as this one: An army is any number of men beyond 35.)

Disputes over land rights were to be decided by the king himself, not local magistrates. Also, trespassing was considered to be a grave offense indeed.

These laws proved to elevate the status of the free commoner: He was not beholden to his local lord or even a county judge. If he had problems, he could go straight to the king. This had two consequences

It made local lords and county judges even less of a factor in common disputes.
It gave the king more of an influence in everyday affairs.

Now, whether the free commoners wanted the king to have an influence in their everyday affairs is not at issue here. The king decided that this was going to be one of the laws, and so it was one of the laws. (It also tended to cut down on local corruption in that a party to a dispute could not longer slip the county judge enough money to secure a judgement in his favor.)

This development would serve to polarize the population in generations to come, but the king didn’t really foresee or really care about that option at that very moment. He was more interested in gaining more of an influence over his subjects, and so he did so and it was so.

What does all this mean? Simply this: This was the beginning of the modern interpretation of common law in the English-speaking world (namely, England). Laws of future generations and even of today can be traced in some part to the statues set down by King Ine of Wessex in the 7th and 8th Centuries.